Keeping An Eye On The Climate, From Space

15:01 minutes

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Gavin Schmidt, NASA’s first Senior Climate Advisor. Credit: NASA/GISS

The climate is changing, and so is the U.S. government’s approach to it. The Biden White House has made the climate crisis a high priority, and has created several new positions focused on climate science.

One of those new climate posts can be found at the space agency NASA. While rockets and Mars rovers may seem far removed from climate issues, NASA is actually the lead federal agency in climate observations, with a fleet of satellites tracking everything from sea temperature to CO2 levels to chlorophyll.  

Ira talks with Gavin Schmidt, who has recently been named in an acting role to be the senior climate advisor for NASA. He’s also director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. They discuss upcoming climate-focused NASA programs, last week’s cold weather in Texas, and the challenge of making better decisions in an uncertain climate future. 

light bulb hand drawing on a green backgrounExplore and share NASA’s Images of Change, which shows the environment in flux, and is a great way to dive into a small subset of NASA huge catalog of observations. Contribute to climate observations! Join Project Budburst from the Chicago Botanical Garden and help further our understanding of how changes to the climate affect the natural world.

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Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Unprecedented cold weather, snow, ice, and heartbreak in Texas. Connected to climate change? Well, we know the climate is changing and so is the US government’s approach to it. The Biden White House has made the climate crisis a high priority, going so far as to create a position of NASA senior climate advisor. And, joining me now, is Dr. Gavin Schmidt. He’s recently been appointed in an acting role in the newly created position. He’s also director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. Good to talk to you again Gavin.

DR. GAVIN SCHMIDT: Thank you for having me, yes, thank you.

IRA FLATOW: First of all, let’s talk about what happened in Texas. I know that we don’t usually point to one weather event, like the cold gripping Texas, as an example of climate change. And you tend to shy away from that also.

DR. GAVIN SCHMIDT: So, obviously, this was a very big impact on Texas. A lot of systems were stressed beyond breaking point. But the kinds of phenomena that we’re looking at, kind of the waviness of the jet stream, is one of those things where people have been looking for signals of climate change, perhaps making the jet stream wavier. But, we haven’t really come to a very strong conclusion about that. It’s, as I say, an area of active study.

IRA FLATOW: But would this be the kind of thing you might see, in other words, extremes of hot and cold in climate change?

DR. GAVIN SCHMIDT: So, there are some kinds of extremes where you have a very clear and direct impact because of climate change. So heat waves, per se, we’re seeing more and more extensive heat waves all across the world. And those are expected impacts of the fact that the planet is warming at the rate that it is. We’re seeing more intense rainfall events. And again, that’s an expected behavior because there’s more water vapor in the atmosphere. So there’s a number of things where we have a very direct link. And then, while we now understand everything that’s going on is being affected by climate change, that the system has changed over the last 50 years– but every extreme event really has to be looked at in its own context. Tornadoes are different from hurricanes, and different from cold air outbreaks, different from heatwaves. And we really need to look specifically at a specific extreme event to make that attribution. And that has not yet happened in a way that would convince everybody with respect to these kind of cold air outbreaks that we saw in Texas.

IRA FLATOW: OK, let’s move on to your new role, which is kind of interesting. I mean, why does NASA need a climate advisor?

DR. GAVIN SCHMIDT: Well, so, NASA spends billions of dollars on climate science every year. We have the most extensive satellite network that’s circling the globe in multiple configurations that’s measuring things like water vapor, and ozone, and temperature, and cloudiness, and radiation, and sea surface heights, and, groundwater depletion and ice mass loss on Greenland and Antarctica. So we have this massive architecture that’s very focused on climate questions, not just how things are changing over time but the processes that underlie all of those changes. And NASA’s investment in that makes it the chief climate agency of the United States.

IRA FLATOW: I don’t think most people realize that.

DR. GAVIN SCHMIDT: I agree. Most people don’t realize that. And so I think that people need to know more about where the data that underlies our conclusions about climate change come from. And part of the new administration’s efforts to make climate change and dealing with climate change a higher priority– one of the things that NASA would like to see happen is that decisions that get made, they get made using the best available science. And, since NASA is providing a lot of that science, and may be able to provide more, we would like that to be part of the solution going forward.

IRA FLATOW: So you see that NASA is going to be increasing its emphasis on Earth observation as part of its activities under this new administration?

DR. GAVIN SCHMIDT: We have a very large Earth observation portfolio right now. We’re in the process of what’s called the decadal survey, where every 10 years we assess what missions are needed, what observations are needed, and then kind of build the teams and the hardware that would be needed to measure those things. And so, we’re in the middle of that right now. We have a number of new missions that are on the drawing board to improve our understanding of atmospheric particles and clouds and how they interact in rainfall, and how they’re going to interact, because we have an aging fleet of things that are in orbit right now. And they’re reaching the end of their lives in terms of how much fuel they have on board and how their instruments are working. And, we need to be thinking about what’s the next stage, how do we continue those measurements, do we need to be making new measurements, how do we kind of plan for that going forward?

IRA FLATOW: Is NASA’s role in climate, then, just in observing and documenting climate effects? Or, is there something NASA can do to help decrease emissions, or to mitigate climate change?

DR. GAVIN SCHMIDT: So the answer is yes. I think NASA can be helping. I mean, one of the things that we can do is that we’ve built tools that allow us to interrogate the climate system, looking at what’s going on right now, but also predict what’s going to happen in the future. And those changes in the future are going to depend on decisions that many people, and the administration themselves, are going to make NASA doesn’t make those decisions. So, NASA is not a policy agency and I don’t think it wants to be a policy agency.

But there is science that underlies policy decisions. If we decide to do this, versus that, what are the impacts going to be on climate, or air quality, or public health, or crop yields, or coastal flooding? All of those things can be looked at in a scientific way, using the tools that we’ve already developed– that can be useful for people who are making decisions about what to do next. And then, there’s things like NASA, as an institution– What are we doing with the amount of money and people and infrastructure that we have? What are we doing to either make our institutions more resilient to climate change and reduce the carbon footprint of the institution itself? So, those are three different ways that I think NASA can be contributing.

IRA FLATOW: Daydream with me here, a little bit, if you will. If the president knocked on your door and said “Gavin, I’d like you to write the climate science section of next year’s budget,” how would you– what would you put in there– besides an aspirin that you needed to take at that moment?


DR. GAVIN SCHMIDT: Now, Ira, that’s really not fair, I mean, all of– everybody who’s listening to this, who get some of that money, is going to be saying, oh, say the right things, say the right– fund me, fund me. There’s a reason why the budget process is a very, very complicated, multi-person and multi-institution negotiation. And there’s a few things that I would like to see funded. I’d love to see more funding for the translation of science to decision making, like how do you take those observations and that understanding and make it more useful for policy? And we do a little bit of that but I think we could be doing a lot more. We could be doing a lot more to elevate the best available science for environmental impacts.

We could be doing a lot more to kind of connect the needs of groups like the weather forecasting community to the observations that we’re building. We could be investing a lot more in data analytics, setting up all the different data streams– not just from the US but from but from Europe and from Japan, and maybe even from China– and have all of that data sitting in one place, where a supercomputer can be looking at it and finding correlations, and interesting patterns, and an interesting processes. We could be doing a lot of those things. And so, , you know I’m– Nobody’s going to knock on my door and ask me these questions. But, there are a few things that I think we could be doing much better, and, hopefully, we will be.

IRA FLATOW: There are a lot of people who think, and are fearing, that we have reached a tipping point in climate. That it doesn’t matter what we do anymore, we’re not going to stop the worst effects of flooding, and hot seasons, and things like that. Do you think we still have time to mitigate the worst effects of climate change?

DR. GAVIN SCHMIDT: So, I think that we always have the choice to make better decisions, right? And wherever we are, and whatever decision we’re making, we can make decisions that are going to be more climate friendly and less climate friendly. And we’re going to need to keep on doing those things, not just this year, not just this administration, not just this decade, but for the rest of the century. And there’s never going to be a point where it’s not worth making a better decision. Now, are we going to see more climate change? Yes, yes we are. Climate change is already having impacts. We’re seeing the impacts in coastal flooding. We’re seeing the impacts in heatwaves and an intense rainfall, as we’ve mentioned.

And is it likely to get worse? Yes, because of the inertia of the system, both our economic systems and the Earth system itself. You know, we’re going to continue to warm beyond where we are now. But, there’s a huge gap between the worst case scenarios and the best case scenarios that we can get to. And the decisions that we make are the difference between a little bit more warming, and a little bit more damage, and absolutely massive amounts of warming, and massive amounts of damage. The worst case projections– we could have another 3, 4 degrees of Celsius warming by the end of the century– if we suddenly decide to burn all the fossil fuel that we had. Or, we ramp down to net zero emissions relatively soon, and then the changes are much, much less.

IRA FLATOW: There are people who are not convinced– and I know you know this– and may never be convinced of the seriousness of the problem. What do you say to them or do you just give up trying to change someone’s mind?

DR. GAVIN SCHMIDT: So, there are some people who have genuine questions or have been confused by things that they’ve read in whatever outlet they read. And I think that they’re certainly worth talking to. And when people do have questions, the science has generally dealt with most of these questions. And so, there are good things to show people. There are interesting things to validate those questions as a whole and help people see why we’ve come to the conclusions that we have done. But then there are some people who just don’t want to deal with the consequences of our understanding, and that’s a much harder, that’s a much harder conversation, and mostly it’s pointless.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Do you think there may be any positive pass through from the COVID-19 science? And, go with me on this, because I think about this a lot, is that– If the science gets right on COVID-19 and, it looks like we’re coming up with vaccinations, and the scientists are being proven correct in their work about how they’re battling this virus– do you think that science may benefit, and all scientists in all fields, may be looked at in a more positive light about the science that they do, and that may spill over into climate change?

DR. GAVIN SCHMIDT: [SIGHS] That’s a great question. And I would love to have the confidence to agree with you, but I don’t think so. I think one of the things that the COVID situation has shown is that no matter the urgency of the problem at hand, there will be people who will reject it for other reasons. And, I used to think that climate was unique in its ability to be rejected, because of its long timescales and the generational issues, and the global nature of it. But we’ve seen all of those things with COVID– but kind of squeezed into a much, much shorter timescale– and we see exactly the same kinds of people, sometimes the same, exact people– dismissing the science, wish casting for what is going to happen, and aggressively undermining confidence in the scientific process.

So, you know, I think there are connections there, but I think they go the wrong way. I think they demonstrate that people, as a whole– You’re never going to convince everybody. There’s always going to be voices that have their own reasons for rejecting what it is that you’re saying, or the implications of what you’re saying. And I think that we will come out of this with a stronger realization that that’s just the human condition, that we just have to deal with, and not focus, perhaps, so much on the contrarian voices– who are just going to be contrarian, because they’re contrarian– and focus much more on the people in the middle who have the questions or who are confused. And that’s true for climate and COVID and all of these other topics as well.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Gavin, for taking time to be with us today, and good luck to you in your new role.

DR. GAVIN SCHMIDT: Thank you very much I think I’ll need

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Gavin Schmidt, acting senior climate advisor for NASA. He’s also director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.

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As Science Friday’s director, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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